Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
One day after work — or, in my case, after the block of time during which most people work — I take the subway uptown to meet my friend Gillian. Gillian lives near Central Park, so we are taking advantage of one of the first warm days of spring by going for a long walk.
When I emerge from the subway, Gillian is pacing on the street corner and talking on the phone. “It’s terrible,” I hear her saying. “I spoke to her, and she sounded pretty upset. I still can’t figure out why her.” She makes the universal symbol for “I’m talking to someone who won’t wrap it up.” “No,” I hear her say, “I thought she was great.”
Gillian fills me in when she gets off the phone. Her company, a tiny consulting firm, has laid off several people. Gillian was told about one of the people, with whom she was working on a project, and she was not surprised that the company was letting her go; Gillian thought that the woman was generally difficult to work with, and had not gotten good performance reviews. But the decision to lay off another employee — the woman she was talking about on the phone — had taken Gillian and her colleagues by surprise. “She was so good at her job,” Gillian laments, sounding stunned, “and the clients were crazy about her. I can’t figure out why they chose her.” Moreover, Gillian adds, the woman is a single mother. “I don’t know what she’s going to do,” she says, “or what to say to her.”
She turns to me. “What do you think would be helpful?” she asks. “What’s the right thing to do in this situation?”
Roxana continues her stroll through unemployment, after the jump.
Gillian and I make several trips around the reservoir, reviewing the good, bad, and bizarre advice, suggestions, and offers of help that friends and family render in response to the news of your unemployment. “It’s hard to know what to say,” she says. “I mean, in your case, I don’t know anything about how your business works, so I couldn’t presume to give you good advice.”
Ironically enough, Gillian has, in fact, always given me good advice, and I think of her as one of my most reliable sources of support. But, I realize, therein lies the problem. When it comes to friends who have been laid off, you never know whether your words of encouragement and brilliant ideas are, well, encouraging and brilliant, or tone-deaf and insensitive. Even if you, too, are a member of the unemployed class, it’s difficult to know where help ends and henpecking begins.
After my talk with Gillian, I compile a list of helpful — and not so helpful — responses to the predicament of a laid-off friend. As the virtual ink is drying on my missive, someone sends me an article from the New York Times entitled Navigating a Delicate Subject: The Layoff of a Friend, by Alina Tugend. And, just like that, I get scooped by the Times. Sort of.
The Times piece raises a number of excellent points, and I encourage anyone who is interested in embracing their sensitive side (and provoking undying gratitude in their unemployed friends) to read it. I am particularly grateful for the suggestion, in the article, to refrain from exclaiming, “Oh my God, what are you going to do?”
I beg to differ, however, with Tugend’s parenthetical observation that this may seem like an “obvious” question to avoid: it is certainly not obvious to the dozens of people who have asked (and continue to ask) me the same thing. Even more unfortunate, I would add, is what typically happens if you don’t have a ready response to this inquiry. For reasons that are unclear to me, saying “I don’t know” usually prompts a round of follow-up questioning focused on how long it will take before your unemployed friend is grappling with worst-case scenarios. I know that this line of questioning is well-intentioned, but I also know that lawyers are particularly prone to systematically deconstructing every problem into its component parts, applying a three-pronged test, and reducing complex facts to a manageable holding. Just keep this in mind: losing one’s job is generally overwhelming, and your friend probably isn’t prepared to give you a good answer to such a fundamental question … at least not right away.
Here are a few other suggestions for the care (and feeding) of your newly jobless friends.
1. Details, details: Offer concrete suggestions. Although it may seem helpful to remind your friend that she can “look online for jobs,” “post a resume on Law.com/Laterallink/Monster,” “check the classified ads,” and “call recruiters,” most unemployed people I know do not find this advice particularly useful.
First, your friend is probably aware of the resource known as “the Internet” (and if not, the Times article points out, they’ve got bigger problems than a job loss). Second, any specific pieces of information — or even concrete ways of helping — that you can offer your jobless friend are far more constructive. For example, even the most diligent job searcher will not unearth — or have access to — every possible lead. If you, however, hear about specific positions through your alumni network, through a recruiter who has contacted you specifically, or through posted openings at your company, send a link or an e-mail with application details to your friend. The most thoughtful friends even exercise discretion when they spread the word about potential opportunities; my friend Jennifer sends her unemployed litigator pals listings that might fit the skill set of a litigator, and passes along information about more transactional positions to her buddies in the corporate world. Is this too much to expect of a friend, you ask? Of course it is. But giving your friend a concrete lead to follow up is far more helpful than suggesting that she check a recruiter’s website. Does it seem obvious? Perhaps. But you would be amazed by how many people spend a great deal of time describing opportunities they’ve heard about to their unemployed friends, but never actually send the information that would start the ball rolling.
The general idea is that it is preferable to give your friends the information they need to figure out how to do something, rather than simply telling them what they should be doing. And, of course, useful information comes in many forms. When I told friends that I had stopped eating out, many sent me recipes so that I might make something other than pea soup. Cliff, always the pitch-man, convinced me that my resume needed to look considerably foxier if it was to stand out from the heap in which it would invariably end up. Then he put me in touch with a friend who could make it happen.
2. Helping Your Friend Save Money: Thrift Is the New Black. I, along with many of my unemployed brethren, am always looking for ways to save money. I’m guessing that your jobless friends are, too, and that they would be extremely grateful for some interesting tips on how to do so. (FYI: most people do not want to be told how to dumpster-dive — at least not yet. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the suggestions of certain well-meaning friends, who shall remain nameless.)
For example, Giovanna is always quick to remind me that looking presentable is an important part of job interviewing, which is her way of telling me, diplomatically, to get my hair cut every once in a while. Knowing that I am in need of professional help (but adhering to a strict budget), she suggested that I check out the establishments once known as “beauty schools.” Before you conjure up visions of a gum-snapping Pink Lady teasing your locks into a vertical plume, take note: I got my hair cut and colored at the very professional (and delightfully aromatheraputic) Aveda Institute for around $60. Sure, they’ll try to rope you into spending $100 on “smoothing serum” once you’re done being coiffed, but they wait until you are no longer clad in the vinyl smock, so you can flee easily.
Another friend (and several Breadlines readers) suggested that I try to find stores that would give me an “unemployment discount.” This may sound crazy given the prevalence of faceless outlets for consumerism, and if you try it at Starbucks you will probably be met with blank stares (although I once got an extra shot of flavored syrup from a sympathetic barista). But take heart: it has been known to work in smaller, more personal establishments. I got a discount on a pair of running shoes, and one of our readers told me that she had received, inter alia, “small discounts, a free poppy seed muffin, a free doctor’s appointment, and late fees taken off [her] phone bill.” You never know.
3. Tell Me About Your Day. There are a lot of things NOT to miss about working at a law firm (of any size), or, for that matter, any job. But a lot of unemployed people I know (including me) miss the company of a workplace, the intellectual stimulation, and the interesting things that (admit it!) happen at almost every job. Being unemployed is isolating and stressful, and talking about the grind of a job search can be equally uninspiring. Although many of my friends have expressed some degree of guilt about discussing work with their jobless friends, and even more guilt when they invariably complain about the jobs they know they are lucky to have, I think that their contrition is misplaced. Work is a part of everyday life, and many (dare I say most?) of your unemployed friends will appreciate you sharing it with them. Don’t worry that your long disquisition about the case you’re handling, the glowing camaraderie of your workplace, or your recent job-related triumphs will serve to highlight the gaping emptiness of your friend’s aimless days. Did I say “gaping emptiness”? I meant “time to listen to whatever you want to tell us about your day at the office.”
4. The Importance of Being Structured. My friend Gillian gave me a helpful piece of advice when I first lost my job. Drawing on her experience as a consultant, which requires her to work on a schedule of her own design, she told me to try to get out of the house and work — or at least sit — somewhere else for at least a few hours every day.
“Take your computer to Starbucks,” she told me, “or go to the library, or the bookstore. Just do something to give your day some shape, and give yourself a chance to feel as though you’ve accomplished something. It will go a long way toward fending off that sense of drift.” Gillian told me that she learned the importance of keeping some sort of schedule when she first started working from home; without it, she found, it was easy to get sucked into procrastinating, feeling aimless, and allowing small assignments to take over her entire day.
Gillian’s advice (which, admittedly, I sometimes fail to follow, to my own detriment) was palatable because she also told me that it was okay to hold myself to a strange schedule, as long as it helped me to structure my time. “It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else,” she told me. “It doesn’t matter when you do things, or in what order. You just need to keep getting up in the morning with a sense that you can get something done, no matter what it is.”
This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, and on some level it is. But the importance of trying to stick to such a plan wasn’t immediately apparent. For the first few weeks of my unemployment, I woke up feeling panicked, and tended to start (and stop) working on half a dozen things at a time. I had to be reminded that the forward momentum of a working life is put into motion by relatively simple activities, like getting dressed and leaving the house — the importance of which I hadn’t stopped to consider when I did those things automatically every day. In other words, if you have a friend who tends to sit around in her sweatpants and hasn’t washed her hair in three days, a gentle nudge might be in order.
You can take a page from my friend Jennifer’s playbook. Jen works nearby, and is kind enough to invite me to her office to work, and to take me out for coffee when she knows that I am holed up in my apartment. I think this started when she called me one day, around 2:30, and asked me if I wanted to meet her on the corner.
“Um, sure,” I said. “I just have to change.”
No need to change, Jen told me; we were just going to have coffee.
“Well,” I said sheepishly, “by ‘change’ I meant ‘put on clothes that one could wear outside the house.’” I looked down at my outfit, unsure whether it was even suitable for wearing inside the house. “I haven’t been outside yet today,” I admitted.
“You need to get it together, girl,” she said flatly. “Get your ass dressed and meet me outside.” Sometimes, that’s what friends are for.